National Academy of Engineering, Volume 19
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  • Free, James M.
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PublisherNational Academies Press
ReleasedOctober 1, 2015
Memorial Tributes: National Academy of Engineering, Volume 19

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  • EDGAR M. CORTRIGHT 1923–2014


    EDGAR MAURICE CORTRIGHT, a skilled engineer and manager of multifaceted space programs and organizations at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), passed away on May 4, 2014, in Scarborough, Maine, at 90 years of age. His most significant accomplishments include establishment of the nation’s first meteorological satellite and space probe programs; supervision of Viking, the first spacecraft to land on Mars; and direction of the Langley Research Center during the transitional period in the early 1970s.

    Ed’s government career began as a research engineer at the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA)’s Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory, where he investigated aerodynamic issues with highspeed inlets and nozzles and headed activities in supersonic wind tunnels. In 1957 he was selected for a series of space related planning committee projects that led to his transfer to headquarters in 1958.

    There he had responsibility for establishing NASA’s initial satellite and space exploration programs. Throughout the 1960s he was a  key manager of all the agency’s unmanned space missions and launch vehicles. In 1968 he was named director of Langley Research Center, where he revitalized facilities and guided the successful Viking program. After retiring in 1975, he managed Owens Illinois Corporation and Lockheed-California Company, served on a number of boards, and started his own business.

    Ed was born on July 29, 1923, in the Pennsylvania coal town of Hastings. He developed an early interest in aviation based on the stories of his father, Edgar Sr., about his experiences as one of the few US pilots in World War I. The family later relocated to Philadelphia where Ed earned his high school diploma. Although active in sports and other activities, he remained focused on aeronautics.

    He began work on an aeronautical engineering degree at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute but, as international tensions escalated in the fall of 1941, accepted his father’s advice and enrolled in the school’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC). During this period Ed met his future wife, Beverly Hotaling.

    In 1944, during his junior year at Rensselaer, he was assigned to the USS Saratoga aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean. The vessel did not see enemy action during its initial mission supporting British raids in Indonesia, but Japanese kamikaze aircraft repeatedly struck during its subsequent assignment at Iwo Jima. The resulting casualties and damage necessitated the ship’s return to the United States for repairs.

    Ed took the opportunity to marry Beverly. The Saratoga spent the remainder of the war training air crews in Hawaii, and Ed was assigned to the Naval Air Modification Unit in Johnsonville, Pennsylvania, where as a project engineer he installed turbo superchargers on Vought Corsair fighter aircraft. He returned to Rensselaer in the fall of 1946 and, as a research assistant, performed theoretical analysis on General Electric air-to-air missile systems. He graduated in the spring of 1947.

    While he completed work on his master’s degree at Rensselaer he applied for employment with NACA. In February 1948 he began work as an aeronautical research scientist at the Lewis Laboratory in Cleveland and was immediately thrown into Associate Director Abe Silverstein’s hand-picked Applied Mechanics Group, which pursued theoretical aerodynamic calculations (and included four future National Academy of Engineering members). Ed later admitted that he struggled to apply his strong mathematical background in such a creative manner.

    In 1949 he was named head of Lewis’ Small Supersonic Tunnels Branch and became involved in more hands-on, applied research. In the mid-1940s Lewis had built a series of supersonic wind tunnels with comparatively small diameter test sections to provide high-speed aerodynamic data while the much larger 8′ × 6′ supersonic wind tunnel was being constructed. Ed and his colleagues used these tunnels to investigate supersonic aircraft inlets and exhaust nozzles.

    He was directly involved in the study of side-mounted inlets, flow over afterbodies, supersonic diffusers, and the use of base bleeding to reduce the drag of blunt-base objects. The base bleed concept allowed a small amount of flow to leak behind the base to increase the pressure which reduced drag. The method was verified with wind tunnel tests using artillery shells. In 1955 Silverstein tapped Ed to head the Supersonic Wind Tunnel Branch. Ed’s 20-person group performed both original in-house research and military and industry development testing.

    The development work included the resolution of boundary layer control problems on the Convair F-106 Delta Dart, Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, and McDonnell-Douglas F-101 Voodoo. In 1957 Silverstein pulled Ed into his personal circle of consultants, beginning his work in the space program. First he selected Ed to attend an exclusive in-house training program on nuclear propulsion.

    Lewis was designing a large nuclear test reactor at the time and becoming more involved in the Project Rover nuclear rocket engine program. Ed was then assigned the responsibility of presenting the introductory remarks at Lewis’ influential Flight Propulsion Conference in November 1957. The classified forum, shortly after the launch of Sputnik, addressed an array of military weapon systems, including atmospheric and intercontinental missiles, longrange bombers, and satellites.

    The meeting was significant for its discussion of high-energy liquid propellants, ion propulsion, and possible future space missions such as a lunar landing. Immediately afterward Silverstein asked Ed to serve on Lewis’ Committee on Space Flight Laboratory, a group developing requirements for a new NACA laboratory to develop chemical, nuclear, and electric propulsion systems. Ed was responsible for identifying the requirements for a multiuse space flight test facility that would include a nuclear rocket test stand.

    The proposed laboratory did not come to fruition, but Ed’s experience establishing the budget, schedule, and logistics opened the door to his role in planning the new space agency. In the spring of 1958, NACA Director Hugh Dryden brought Silverstein to headquarters to assist with the planning of what would become NASA. Silverstein in turn asked Ed and eight other Lewis staff members to assist in developing the necessary programs.

    Ed was concurrently named chief of the Lewis Plasma Physics Branch that studied ion engines, but increasingly he was travelling to headquarters. Initially the Lewis group would fly into Washington on a Sunday night, put in a week of 12- to 14-hour days (which were informally extended in Silverstein’s room late into the night), then return to Cleveland the following Friday or Saturday. Over the course of several months, the Lewis team played a primary role in the assembly of the space agency and establishment of its initial programs. In October 1958 Ed permanently transferred to headquarters and the Cortrights purchased a house in Bethesda.

    As chief of advanced technology in the Office of Space Flight Development, Ed was initially responsible for establishing NASA’s first meteorological satellite programs, TIROS and Nimbus. His role then broadened to encompass all of NASA’s space applications programs, including meteorological, communication, navigation, and geodetic satellites. He consulted with military and university researchers who had delved into these fields, organized the information, plotted out NASA’s efforts, and developed program schedules and budgets.

    He was critical to the development of NASA project management policy by helping define the lines of responsibility between headquarters, the field centers, other agencies, and contractors. Silverstein reorganized the Office of Space Flight Programs on February 7, 1960, and created two new offices: Lunar and Planetary Programs and Satellite and Sounding Rocket Programs. As director of the former, Ed managed all lunar, planetary, and interplanetary exploration efforts, including Mariner, Ranger, Lunar Orbiter, and Surveyor (both the space-craft and their launch vehicles). He managed the technical and programmatic issues while his deputy handled the scientific concerns.

    In May 1960 NASA formally adopted Ed’s system for naming exploration spacecraft: Lunar missions would refer to land exploration concepts (Surveyor), planetary probes would have nautical themes (Mariner), and unique missions would be assigned the name of the group working on them.

    President Kennedy’s May 1961 call for a manned lunar landing brought about a major reorganization at NASA that included Ed’s appointment as deputy to Homer Newell in the Office of Space Science and Applications (OSSA) and Silverstein’s return to Lewis as its director. The responsibilities of OSSA were similar to those of the Lunar and Planetary Programs Office, but the new plan to place a man on the moon increased the urgency to robotically explore the moon beforehand. Major issues with the Ranger and Surveyor spacecraft and the Atlas Centaur launch vehicle had to be addressed.

    The Ranger program consisted of a series of spacecraft designed to transmit images back to earth while crashing into the moon. These were the first US spacecraft to reach the moon. Early tension between the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and headquarters about the management of the program was exacerbated by a series of failures. Congress reduced funding for Ranger in June 1963, but maintained the program. However, despite a major overhaul of the program, the Ranger 6 mission failed as well. Cortright and Newell took responsibility for personally reviewing and approving the Ranger 7 vehicle before its launch—and the July 31, 1964, Ranger 7 mission provided the first close-up photographs of the moon.

    In mid-1963, at the height of the Ranger problems, Ed began advocating for the lunar orbiter mission. He argued that one lunar orbiter taking high-resolution photographs while orbiting the moon would provide more information than several Ranger flights. As Congress reduced funding for Ranger, it approved the lunar orbiter program.

    Notwithstanding the lack of spacecraft experience at both its home center, Langley, and its contractor, Boeing, the program proved to be a great success. General Dynamics’ Centaur second-stage rocket was a critical challenge for OSSA. Paired with the Atlas missile, Centaur was scheduled to launch a series of Surveyor spacecraft to the moon.

    The Surveyors would soft land on the moon, take samples, and explore sites for the Apollo landings. But Centaur, the first liquid-hydrogen and liquid-oxygen space vehicle, and its Pratt & Whitney RL-10 engines were suffering developmental problems under the management of Marshall Space Flight Center. The failure of the first test launch in May 1962 brought the crisis to a head. Major congressional and internal NASA reviews elicited calls to cancel the program. In September 1962 Ed convinced Silverstein to take on the program at Lewis.

    He then met with Wernher von Braun and Eberhard Rees at Marshall who wanted to launch Surveyor with a Saturn I rocket. Ed decided against the proposal and transferred Centaur to Lewis. It was a sound decision. After a year of testing and analysis, Lewis successfully launched an Atlas Centaur in November 1963. The rocket not only successfully completed the Surveyor missions in the mid-1960s but has served as the nation’s primary space tug ever since. In November 1963 Ed was named deputy associate administrator of OSSA.

    He retained responsibility for the lunar and planetary exploration missions and launch vehicles, while resuming his earlier management of earth and space observation satellites. His management was a key aspect of NASA’s 50 successful unmanned missions completed by September 1965. In this role, he also participated in the planning for what would become the Viking missions to Mars. In 1967 he compiled an impressive collection of photographs taken in space during the early years of the space program.

    Exploring Space with a Camera (NASA, 1968) presents images from the meteorological and earth observation satellites; the Ranger, Surveyor, and Lunar Orbiter missions to the moon; and the Mercury and Gemini flights. It was the first time many of these photographs were published, and the book was very popular. In late 1967 Ed reluctantly accepted the position of deputy associate administrator of the Office of Manned Space Flight, his first direct role in the manned space program.

    The Apollo program was well under way by this point, so he had little direct influence. He spent several months in early 1968 reviewing equipment problems with contractors. His analysis and site visits revealed rampant problems in scheduling deliveries and qualification tests, as well as issues with subcontractors. He increased NASA oversight, implemented additional subsystem testing, and integrated subprime contractors in the decision process. During the next several months he began carving out a niche for himself with Skylab and other post-Apollo missions while keeping an eye out for other positions.

    In 1968 he decided to apply for the position of director of the Langley Research Center. It was the first time he applied for a new job since joining NACA in 1948. NASA Administrator James Webb felt the center needed a significant change and the 45-year-old Cortright, who had spent the better part of the past decade dealing with the relationships between headquarters and the centers, seemed to be a logical selection. Ed was the first director from outside the center, and many Langley managers were somewhat standoffish at first. The situation was not helped by NASA’s dramatic budget cuts and reductions in staffing levels.

    Ed spent his first six months at Langley meeting with the different sections to learn about their activities. He was surprised to find that many division chiefs did not have a grasp of the work done by their staff. He began moving the center’s leading researchers into management, and despite NASA downsizing was able to recruit younger staff and convince older members to retire. The result was an entirely new, younger management corps at Langley.

    Ed outlined his goals and established Aeronautics, Space, Electronics, and Structures directorates, and in 1970 allowed managers and a special task force to reorganize the staff around them. It was Langley’s largest reorganization at the time. He also arranged for the rehabilitation of a number of buildings and test facilities and created a very popular visitors’ center. Despite the agency’s move away from hypersonics, he secured funding for a small transonic wind tunnel, which led directly to establishment of the National Transonic Facility in 1983.

    In April 1970 Ed was appointed chair of the Apollo 13 Review Board, with representatives from the astronaut corps, Air Force, headquarters, and field centers. The board spent two months in Texas reviewing and analyzing the mission data and, after more than 100 different tests, concluded that the oxygen tank ignited after the Teflon wiring inside the tank sparked.

    The board’s report in June 1970 presented nine recommendations for future Apollo missions. Perhaps Ed’s most successful and most controversial accomplishment at Langley was the procurement of the Viking program. He had been active in a 1966 proposal to use a Saturn V to launch explorer vehicles to the Martian surface. Langley and JPL were competing for the mission, then called Voyager, when it was cancelled in the summer of 1967. Cortright and Newell proposed four new Mars flyby and lander options to Webb, who in turn successfully lobbied Congress for funding.

    Ed, subsequently appointed director at Langley, took several steps to ensure that the Mars lander program, now known as Viking, was assigned to the center. He quickly converted Langley’s Lunar Orbiter Office into the Advanced Space Flight Projects Office. He also made a concerted effort to transfer JPL astrobiologist Gerald Soffen to Langley; JPL, which was competing for the program, resisted until headquarters insisted. Viking, assigned to Langley in December 1968, was perhaps NASA’s premier mission of the 1970s and a major coup for the center. Ed had program manager Jim Martin report directly to him. Although Viking brought funding and publicity to Langley, many of the center’s other researchers became concerned that other areas were suffering as a result.

    Ed later claimed that half of his time was devoted to Viking—and the effort paid off when the two landers touched down on Mars in July and September 1976. These first spacecraft to land on Mars provided a wealth of high-resolution photography, surface samples, and atmospheric data. Ed received honorary doctorate degrees from George Washington University in 1973 and Rensselaer in 1975. He also edited a history of the Apollo Program as told by some of its most charismatic participants. Apollo: Expeditions to the Moon (NASA, 1975) featured chapters by Robert Gilruth, von Braun, Webb, and others, including Ed himself.

    For Ed, the twin Viking launches in the summer of 1975 signaled the end of his tenure at Langley and he decided to leave the agency after 30 years of federal service. He made his first foray into private industry as corporate vice president and technical director of Owens Illinois Corporation. It was not only his first nongovernmental position but also his first outside the aerospace field. The Owens years proved to be a disappointment and he left in 1978 to become senior vice president for science and engineering at Lockheed-California, which was developing a number of military aircraft at the time, including the F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter.

    The following year he was named president, a position in which he continued to enjoy working directly with staff to resolve issues. Over the next four years he helped turn the company’s significant losses into profits. During his retirement Ed served on the boards of several companies and began a land development business. He participated in the investigation of a TriStar airliner crash in 1980, and served on the Shuttle Safety Advisory Board that investigated Challenger as well as the National Research Council panel that advocated NASA’s mixed fleet launch vehicle policy.

    In addition to the NAE, Ed was a member of Sigma Xi, Tau Beta Pi, Pi Delta Sigma, and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and American Astronautical Society (AAS). He received the Arthur S. Flemming Award (1963), NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal (1966), NASA Distinguished Service Medal (1967), and AAS Space Flight Award (1970). The Cortrights retired to Palm City, Florida. Beverly passed away in 2012 after 67 years of marriage. Survivors are daughter Susan Weiss, son David Cortright, and three grandchildren.


    *James M. Free is director of the Glenn Research Center where Ed Cortright spent the early years of his career. Robert Arrighi, historian and research associate at the Glenn Research Center, compiled the information used to prepare this tribute. 

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